It sounds like the plot of a political thriller: a secret team sent to the outback to interfere in an election, a mysterious vessel harbor, and a legal battle that has influenced voting behavior for decades.
But the election scandals in the Kimberley region in the 1970s and 1980s during state elections are documented in dozens of documents and the memories of Aboriginal elders who were the subject of the “dirty tricks” used in the election campaigns.
Ironically, the shameful episodes aimed at disenfranchising Indigenous peoples led to the creation of the first government-sponsored education campaigns to engage Aboriginal voters, which continue to this day.
“It was one of the appalling episodes of attempts to divert people from voting rights,” said former Kimberley MP Carol Martin.
“But I think they underestimate the Aboriginal people… they tried the trick, but in many cases, it didn’t work as well as they hoped.”
Carol Martin was in her twenties and involved in land rights campaigns in the Kimberley when the voter suppression scandals took place. (ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Ashleigh Davis)
The 2022 federal campaign was marked by accusations of “ghost candidates” and misinformation on social media.
But the history of voter manipulation in Australia goes back decades to a handful of small bush polling booths that were the focus of a campaign to deprive Aboriginal people of their legal vote.
‘A special period of change’
Aboriginal people were allowed to vote in 1961, but participation remained low for years.
Pamphlets on voter education were distributed to indigenous communities in the 1970s. (Provided: Susan Bradley)
There were tensions by the time the 1977 WA state elections were called.
Aboriginal families had moved away from Christian missions and cattle stations, trying to adapt to their newfound freedoms and autonomy.
Historian and author Howard Pederson say the land rights movement grew rapidly.
“It was an extraordinary period of social, political, and economic transformation,” he says.
“Until then, many people had little control over their lives.
“So the defining feature of this period was the politicization of Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia.”
Author Howard Pederson has researched the era for a planned book. (ABC News: Erin Parke)
And in the Kimberley, a high-profile Gidja man from Halls Creek stood before Parliament, threatening the status quo.
Labor candidate Ernie Bridge posed a triple threat: a native country-and-western singer, a successful businessman, and a popular local shire president.
The WA Liberal government feared Secretary Alan Ridge would lose the crucial seat, so strategists in Perth sprang into action and devised a plan to intervene.
Ernie Bridge was the first Aboriginal MP in Western Australia and the first Aboriginal minister in the country. (ABC News: Ben Collins)
A thwarted plan
“It was pretty radical and daring to do,” Pederson says.
“They concocted a plan to fly a group of lawyers to the Kimberley just before the election to be placed at half a dozen remote polling stations.”
Aboriginal people who came to vote were extensively questioned about their legal status and voting rights.
Some, who could not read or write, were denied their right to present a voting card to indicate their preference.
In an incident in Kununurra, an off-duty police officer was found to have illegally expelled a group of local Aborigines gathered at the polling station.
Kimberley MP Ernie Bridge outside the state parliament in 1990. (Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)
The Court of Disputed Returns would later rule that more than 90 people were illegally prevented from voting.
That nullified the result, and the courts ordered another vote, which the Liberal party eventually won again.
It was not until the next state elections – in 1980 – that Mr. Bridge won the Kimberley for Labour seat.
It was the start of a 20-year parliamentary career and the beginning of Labour’s 40-year stranglehold on the seat.
But that election was also mired in controversy.
The Turkey Creek Wine Festival
On Election Day in 1980, a scandalous rumor spread through the Kimberley vine.
Two men had transported a 44-gallon barrel of fortified wine to the Turkey Creek community to get residents to vote.
Labor MP Peter Dowding described later that year the incident in derogatory terms in Parliament, they Creek incident resulted in an apology and a $1,000 donation to the community of the men involved, but no charges were filed. (Supplied: National Library of Australia/Trove)
“On Election Day this year, there was a blatant and self-declared attempt… to intoxicate a group of Aborigines near Turkey Creek,” Dowding told Parliament.
“The idea was to make them so incapacitated that they wouldn’t be able to carry out their previous intention to vote for the Labor Party candidates.”
Liberal minister Phil Lockyer reacted strongly, denying the Liberal party planted the alcohol.
“I just have [want to] make that clear right away [after] this incident became public, the Liberal Party distanced itself from itself… it was a shame to do, and that it was something that no one in their right mind would support,” Mr. Lockyer said.
“While I think the Turkey Creek incident was horrific, there are those who believe that the person involved should be knighted.”
The Turkey Creek election day scandal was immortalized on T-shirts printed in the nearby town of Kununurra. (Provided: Tom Stephens)
A government report on racial discrimination later quoted one of the men involved:
“I wanted to get them drunk because they are the most illiterate race in the world. They don’t have the brains to vote.”
The sabotage attempt failed – the community president tossed the alcohol in the trash, and Ernie Bridge eventually won Kimberley’s seat.
There was no evidence that the incident was related to the Liberal Party, and it quickly distanced itself from what soon became known as the “Turkey Creek Wine Festival.”
But the incident reinforced the belief that conservative factions would stop at nothing to try and stop Aborigines from voting.
An unreliable fake check?
Kununurra, the local Keith Wright, who ran as an independent candidate in 1977, told ABC this week that the men were trying to make a point by disrupting the poll.
Keith Wright remains a well-known character in the Kimberley town of Kununurra. (Provided: Keith Wright)
“They had the impression that if they weren’t literate enough to understand the political situation, they shouldn’t vote,” he says.
“I don’t necessarily agree with that… but there were many things then that wouldn’t be done now, either because of legalities or changing public opinion.”
Mr. Wright’s campaign tactics drew criticism: he distributed a flyer that looked like a check.
He denies it was an attempt to trick illiterate people into voting for him.
“It was designed to grab attention, so the fact that we’re still talking about it 40 years later means it worked,” he says.
“I didn’t mean to give the impression that I would be handing out money.
“I had it approved by the Reserve Bank of Australia, so there were no legal issues.”
Keith Wright denies that his how-to-vote flyer is designed to mislead illiterate voters. (Provided: Susan Bradley)
Loyalty to Labor ‘unhealthy.’
Around the same time, the WA Liberal Party attempted to introduce voter literacy tests, which were widely interpreted as an attempt to suppress the indigenous vote.
These incidents – as well as support for land rights and the apology to the stolen generation – established a lifelong loyalty to the Australian Labor Party in many Aboriginal communities.
Election data shows that residents of remote communities still predominantly vote for Labour.
The trend is not enough to shift things at the federal level. Since 2013, Durack’s seat has been held by Liberal MP Melissa Price, who enjoys widespread support in the larger Pilbara and Mid-West cities.
But some believe that Indigenous people’s loyalty to Labor is misguided and unhealthy.
Warren Greatorex says he stood for the Liberal Party to provide an alternative for voters at a distance. (ABC News: Ben Collins)
Warren Greatorex is the husband of Nyikina and Jabirr Jabirr, who previously ran for Parliament for the Liberal party.
He says too many Aborigines automatically vote for the ALP.
“As a young guy growing up in the Kimberley, we were always influenced to vote for Labour, but we didn’t understand why,” he says.
“I think something has to change because it’s not getting better here, and you must wonder why.
“So it should be encouraged so pe,ople know there are other options to choose a different side.”
He says Labor has failed to tackle the region’s outstanding juvenile delinquency or improve engagement in education.
A government voter education pamphlet was distributed to indigenous communities in the 1970s. (delivered)
Indigenous voices are still lagging.
More than 40 years after the Kimberley election scandals, Aboriginal people are still less likely to register to vote than the rest.
About 97 percent of the adult population would be on the electoral roll, but only 80 percent of eligible Aborigines.
Gina Dario of the Australian Election Commission says the number is slowly increasing.
The Australian Electoral Commission is now running a remote voting program, which involves visiting hundreds of isolated communities to collect votes. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)
“We have an indigenous national engagement program, but it’s a long-term challenge,” she says.
“It is very important if we want our parliament to be truly representative.”
A cherished T-shirt from a dark day
Yamatji and Noongar’s wife, Carol Martin, remained in Parliament for 12 years.
For years she cherished her ‘Turkey Creek Wine Festival’ T-shirt as a darkly humorous nod to an embarrassing episode.
But she says it’s also an important reminder of the need for vigilance around preserving basic rights.
“I don’t think much has changed in some circles — some people still believe that Aboriginal people are a little bit stupid,” she says.
Carol Martin holds a photo of herself with former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. (ABC Midwest and Wheat Belt: Ashleigh Davis)
She cites the recent move by the Morrison administration to introduce voter identification requirements, which she abandoned after accepting she wouldn’t make it through the Senate.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but come on – who will be hurt by that?” she asks.
“Most Aboriginal people in remote communities don’t have an ID card; they may not have a birth certificate or driver’s license or any of those documents… so that directly rules out amanypeople.
“So they will still try to find ways to exclude Aboriginal people from the vote – it’s a shame, it’s bad, but it’s something we have to deal with.”